The first Helen Dalton knew about it was the empty seats. She saw them on the parliamentary feed and instantly knew the members of her own party had decided to abstain from a vote on water rights, which she had campaigned on since she was elected. “And I just thought, ‘No, I’m not going to play games with these people,’ ” the now-independent member for Murray says. “So that’s when I decided to leave the party.”
Dalton entered the New South Wales upper house in 2019, as a member of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. Her resignation soon after that February vote is a significant loss for the party. Its only female elected member, Dalton invoked key issues with authority: she grew up on a farm, worked as a teacher and is active in rural health. Most of all, though, her electorate is in the Murray–Darling’s southern basin, a key battleground for the Shooters, where they are jostling with the National Party over who best represents the bush.
The split was acrimonious, with particular bitterness between Dalton and party leader Robert Borsak. For Dalton, Borsak was “autocratic”. His party was “nepotistic” and unfriendly to women: “I was the first woman in the SFF and I reckon I’ll be the last.”
Retribution was swift. The party shut down Dalton’s social media page, with 28,000 followers and featuring many condolence messages for her recently deceased father. She had the page reinstated, but in April the party released a newsletter accusing her of being a rogue operator with federal ambitions who made “hidden deals” with the Greens and independent Justin Field.
Borsak vehemently rejects Dalton’s criticisms, saying: “She’s singularly the most divisive, undeservedly arrogant person I think I’ve ever met. She’s not a team player.” He also scoffs at the thought that his party is unfriendly to women. “Don’t play the misogyny card on me,” he says. “Talk to Sue.” By Sue he means Sue Gilroy, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the party in the Upper Hunter byelection last year. Her review is glowing: “I was supported 110 per cent ... They listened to me, they respected me, they trusted what I had to say.”
Two years earlier, the Shooters were on a high. They had won two long-term National Party seats, giving them a block of three connected electorates. Dalton had won Murray, which had been dominated by the National Party for more than 35 years, while Roy Butler had won Barwon, which had been held by the Nationals since the 1950s.
The Shooters dislodged the rusted-on Nats mainly on one issue: water. At that time, NSW was in the grip of a record drought. Months before polls opened, images of the Menindee fish kills had been seen across the country, proof that the Barwon–Darling river system – a northern section of the Murray–Darling Basin – was being fatally mismanaged.
“I knew that day with the fish kill that would be the end of the government,” Dalton recalls, “because their water management was just atrocious – and it still is.” Both she and Butler enjoyed massive favourable swings – 26 per cent to Dalton and 20 per cent to Butler.
Dalton’s and Butler’s electorates are enormous, more than half the total area of NSW. They cover most of the state’s portion of the Murray–Darling Basin. In winning those, the Shooters inherited the basin’s contested space. Arranged against a north-south divide were two sides at loggerheads on how the Barwon–Darling is managed: upstream is the Barwon–Darling’s northern basin, where irrigation is mostly for cotton; downstream is the southern basin, where Indigenous groups, communities and irrigators rely on the Darling, which ceases to flow in dry years because of increased extractions up north.
Butler’s electorate, Barwon, is the size of Germany and contains a chunk of southern interests, too, including the Menindee Lakes. Dalton’s constituents are in the southern basin. With the largest swings towards the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers coming from the southern corner and non-irrigator towns, election results reflected the southern basin’s dissatisfaction with water policy, while northern irrigator towns generally stuck by the National Party.
The connection between northern irrigators and the National Party was borne out in a 2020 NSW ICAC report into complaints of corruption in the state government’s management of water. It found no corruption but noted “a clear alignment between the department’s strategies and goals and those of the irrigation industry”.
The widely held view is that Butler is genuine in his attempt to walk the thin line between the jostling demands of diverse interests: “I’ve tried to be fair and listen to all sides.”
Dalton says she was open to compromise but that she and Butler were on a “collision course” that the party could not resolve. “It was a catalyst for me to go.”
Butler points to his party’s 10-point plan on water, which he and Dalton took to the most recent election and which both he and Borsak claim she abandoned. Butler says he’s achieved most points and that this is proof he can compromise.
Sometimes, though, Butler’s line vanishes altogether. Floodplain harvesting, the issue that prompted Dalton to leave the party, could drive a wedge through Butler’s electorate. The practice refers to capturing flood waters as they cross a property, using dams and levees. It has a history of stirring passions in the basin.
Despite states agreeing to limit infrastructure to 1994 levels, during the past few decades huge amounts of infrastructure have been built to capture floodwater in the northern basin. A report produced by research and policy consultants Slattery & Johnson, and funded by southern groups, concluded that between 1994 and 2020 “the capacity of on-farm storages increased by 142 per cent ... from 574 gigalitres … to 1395 gigalitres”. For context, South Australia’s entire annual entitlement under the Murray–Darling Basin Plan is 1850 gigalitres.
Most northern and southern basin groups agree the practice needs regulation; the clash is over accompanying licences that could affirm existing infrastructure, which Dalton claims is akin to “siphoning” off water upstream.
Southern communities want the Barwon–Darling to flow even in dry years, as it once did naturally. This is important for a range of environmental and social reasons, but it would also spread the flow to South Australia, across another river. Otherwise, the entire 1850 gigalitres of South Australia’s allocation must come from the Murray, a volume so large that the river cannot handle it. This is especially the case at the Barmah Choke, where unseasonal flooding leads to stagnant water that drowns the red gums.
Since 2020, three attempts have been made to introduce regulation. Each time the regulation has been disallowed in the upper house. On the third instance, licences were issued in the Gwydir and Border river valleys before the upper house had the chance to disallow the legislation. Those licences survive. On July 1, the practice was regulated for a fourth time. The NSW minister for Lands and Water, Kevin Anderson, has six weeks to issue licences to the remaining three valleys before parliament can disallow again, sending the regulation back into limbo.
Handing out licences before parliament can disallow the regulation has drawn strong criticism from crossbenchers.
Independent Justin Field says, “This is a multibillion-dollar boondoggle – a gift to a handful of very wealthy landholders at the expense of other water users and communities.”
Dalton introduced a bill in May that would limit any taxpayer compensation that a licence holder could receive, calling the practice a “massive heist”.
Both the amount of water and its value are also in question. Southern Riverina Irrigators chair Chris Brooks estimates the water is worth $4 billion. The chief executive of the NSW Irrigators’ Council, Claire Miller, disputes this, saying that estimate is twice as much as it should be. Greens MP Cate Faehrmann questions why neither the NSW Treasury nor the Expenditure Review Committee has been involved in a decision of such magnitude.
On June 26, Brooks took the bold move of sending a letter directly to Premier Dominic Perrottet, offering to buy all of the floodplain northern basin water from the NSW government, with “a package of $1 billion to purchase, protect, manage and monitor all floodplain harvesting licences”.
Brooks claims the offer is genuine, stating two possible sources for the money, but he has had no response. He says: “It will be very difficult for Perrottet to give it to these blokes despite an offer on the table for a billion dollars to buy it.”
For the Shooters and Butler, the question remains: Can they thread the needle between southern and northern interests and stave off the National Party at the next election? Butler’s success in the southern basin will speak to the party’s credibility in Murray, too, where it will challenge Dalton on her own turf. No candidate has been confirmed but Borsak says “the people we are talking to are both ladies at this stage”.
For Dalton, “leaving the party has opened up a whole new support base”.
She says the party’s association with guns had turned off some people, “particularly women”. On her chances in the next election, she says: “I’ve done what needed to be done for the best outcome for my electorate … I’m so far in front it’s a joke, anyways.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Shooting the messenger".
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